You don’t have to be the wonky sort to want to keep tabs on what is going on in Northeast Asia. Yes, diplomacy can be tedious — although North Korean rhetoric does liven things up a good bit — but most Japan Times readers live in Japan and that puts them within range of those missiles ostensibly threatening the country. Those storms in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea blow uncomfortably close to home. Wanting to be informed doesn’t seem like morbid curiosity to me; I’d call it healthy.
One of the best resources for Northeast Asian developments is the Nautilus Institute, a Berkeley, Calif., think tank that was started by Peter Hayes, an Australian who has devoted himself to regional issues such as security and sustainable development. The institute has given special attention to North Korea.
The institute’s Web site has news, research projects and discussion forums. Some of those projects are making news themselves. Hans Kristiansen, a Danish nuclear researcher, has uncovered some of the history of U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan and it is a grim story. His work shows that the declared policy notwithstanding, Japanese policy has been the nuclear equivalent of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” A succession of governments in Tokyo have decided that it is easier to not know about U.S. nuclear weapons than it is to put nonnuclear principles into practice.
The Nautilus Institute’s NAPSNET e-mail newsletter comes out every weekday. An invaluable quick read, it summarizes the news on East Asia from the major wire services (Reuters, AP and even the Department of Defense Early Bird newswire.)
When big stories break, NAPSNET will distribute summaries of foreign press reports or the entire transcripts of press conferences.
Another nifty item is the quarterly reports on North Korea that the institute distributes via the mailing list. They are the product of a collaboration between the Moscow-based Center for Contemporary International Problems and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and deserve special attention because of the Russian angle on North Korean behavior.
It is difficult for anyone to get a read on what is going on in Pyongyang, but Russia probably has the edge on most rivals. Great Leader Kim Il Sung was trained and sheltered by the Soviet Union during World War II and supported by Stalin afterward. Although the two countries have fallen out since the end of the Cold War — and had a couple of run-ins even during that period — Russians still have pretty good insight into what is going on in the hermit kingdom.
The only folks that might have better information about North Korean affairs would be the Chinese, but they don’t seem as forthcoming about it as the Russians.
Still, for people who want to follow news from China, there is China News Daily. CND is a nonprofit organization that puts out its own e-mail newsletter with news from the mainland. The newsletter, which comes out in several editions, is a digest of China-related news from Asian newspapers, as well as some material translated by CND staff.
In addition, there are special reports. For example, after dissident Wei Jingsheng was released from prison and exiled to the West, CND released a long (10-installment) interview with him.
Sometimes the news isn’t enough, however. Pacific Forum-CSIS, a Honolulubased think tank that is affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., is now publishing Comparative Connections, a quarterly electronic journal on East Asian bilateral relations.
Each issue examines 12 key bilateral relationships in East Asia, providing an analytic essay and a chronological summary of events since the last issue. Vol. 2 was released last week.
Among the contributors are Japan scholar Michael Green, who examines the Japan-U.S. relationship; Bonnie Glaser, who explores U.S.-China relations; James Pryzstup, who tries to make sense of Japan-China diplomacy; and Gerrit Gong, who probes the standoff across the Taiwan Strait. In fact, the strength of the journal is its focus on bilateral relationships that do not include the United States.
CSIS is a pillar of the East Coast foreign policy establishment, and some of the Comparative Connections contributors are consulting for the U.S. government. That is helpful for people who want insight into the official line in Washington, but it has drawbacks, too.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories. Experience leads me to believe that governments are too big, too inefficient and too divided to pull off any real coups, except by accident. But I do believe that people can become victims of a particular mind-set.
Last week, I met with Leon Sigal, a former New York Times editorial writer and government official, whose book “Disarming Strangers” is the best and most complete study of U.S. nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
Sigal argues that the U.S. foreign-policy community’s views of North Korea have been held hostage to a way of thinking that is outdated and incorrect. Contrary to the image of North Korea as a rogue state that will break every rule when it pleases, the history of negotiations shows that North Korea has tried to establish a diplomatic detente with the U.S. for years and has been frustrated at every turn.
He shows that when Washington cooperates with Pyongyang, a deal is reached and the bargain is honored. When the U.S. tries coercion, the North Koreans respond in kind. That is at odds with most of the reporting about diplomatic relations between the two. But Sigal makes a compelling argument. (Hey, I’m convinced.)
His reading of the record requires access to the facts. It isn’t available from a cursory glance at the newspapers. The Internet now gives people who care about the issues the means to get the facts themselves. Given the stakes, it might be worth the trouble to pay attention.